As we may have learnt it, Sri Lanka [Ancient name: Ceylon or Sinhala], at some point in history until the present day, has become the new centre of Buddhism. After the original doctrine discovered and introduced to the world by the Buddha more than 25 centuries ago, gradually, for many reasons, Buddhism started to fade and eventually vanish from its mother-land – India. However, it found its new home- Ceylon or Sri Lanka.
In the ancient time the Island was called ‘Dhammadīpa’, literally means ‘the Isle of Dhamma’. It is noteworthy here to learn that the term ‘Dhamma’ itself has been used by ancient Indian philosophical schools for millenniums even before the time of the Buddha, or during the time of the Buddha. It is believed the term had been used to deliver or represent philosophical message to people. The meaning of this word is varied. It is perhaps taking enormous space to describe the meaning. However, the general term which is widely used and comprehended in many traditions are ‘virtue’, ‘natural law’, ‘doctrine’, and ‘moral teachings’. Thus, the name of the Island might have been created after Buddhism was introduced in Ceylon in the 3rd century B.C.E.
Sri Lanka also is claimed to be the first location in which the ‘tipit᷂aka’ was systematically inscribed into a writing collection of Sinhalese language. Therefore the Kingdom, for centuries, has played a significant role in propagating and supporting Buddhism in many aspects. Speaking of which, firstly, it is a proper inscription of the ‘tipit᷂aka’ was conducted here as well as the composition of several prominent Buddhist literature commentaries. Lastly, the Kingdom also has been the centre-point of Buddhist education [especially Theravada doctrine] from the beginning in the 3rd Century B.C.E. until now.
Currently the Island’s official name is ‘The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka’. Generally, as mentioned, it is well recognised as an ancient Buddhist Kingdom in the ancient time [not that I know of nowadays]. There is a pre-historic legend describing the story of the Three Buddhas; ‘Kakusan᷂da’, ‘Konāgamana’, and ‘Kassapa’ in Buddhist scriptures [perhaps also produced here]. The scripture also presents common name of the Island differently, for instance; ‘Ojadīpa’ in the time of Kakusa᷂nda Buddha, ‘Varadīpa’ in the time of Konāgamana Buddha, and ‘Man᷂thadīpa’ in the time of Kassapa Buddha. However, what we might have realised best about the proper name of the Kingdom is ‘Lankadīpa’ which literally means ‘the Isle of lamp of light’. Furthermore, the terminology of ‘Lankā or lonkā’ appears as the name of the city of prominent Hindu god named ‘Rama’ in ‘Ramayana’ literature. Because of as the centre of doctrinal propagation, apart from India, many Asian traditions especially in South East Asian countries, the term ‘Rama’ influenced the name of Kings in many ancient dynasties such as Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Laos or ancient Mon tradition.
However, here is a brief chronology of Buddhism in Sri Lanka which is noteworthy to observer herein;
1. Pre-Anurādapura period – It is agreed to count from the beginning period of Anuradapura before it became the capital of the Island. This period is divided into two main periods; prehistoric period and the beginning of historic period of Sri Lanka. The beginning was when Prince Vijaya with his army travelled to the Island from India and settled in around the 6th century B.C. According to Sri Lanka chronicle, it states that Prince Vijaya and his army was the first clan to establish on the Island properly and they are believed to be the ancestors the present Sinhalese. However, through various researches presented from literatures, legends, religious scriptures, evidence proves that there were prehistoric aborigines and settlements on the Island before Prince Vijaya migrated from India. There is a legend depicts account of the Buddha [not the present one; Gotama or Gautama]. Thus, the historic period should begin in the time of Prince Vijaya until Anurādapura was established as the Capital later.
2. Anurādapura period – It began when the city was established as the Capital. Also, this period may have been divided into two according to ‘Mahāvangsa’ [The great linage; literally represents the linage of Buddhism in Sri Lanka] scripture; the first and the second part. The reason is that because of ‘Mahāvangsa’ which is believed to be the chronicle of Sri Lanka ends its record in the reign of King Mahānama in the first half of 5th Century B.C. Thus it is considered the first half of the city as the Capital. Nonetheless, the second half of Anurādapura period was counted from 5th - 11th Century until its fall eventually. The account of this latter half is depicted in ‘Cullavangsa’ [The trivial linage] scripture.
3. Polonnaruva period – This period began when the city was promoted as the Capital of the Island in the 11th Century until the arrival of the West in the 16th Century which entailed the colonial period of Sri Lanka. Interestingly the account also is described in ‘Mahāvangsa’, therefore the scripture may have been produced much later. In this period there were cities promoted as the Capital, in very short term, such as Dambadeniya, Gampola, and Kotte. Note that in Gotte period, the first group of Westerner arrived the Island and made several interactions mostly cultural and trading until it led to colonial consequence later. Through history, the Kingdom has fallen under Western colonialism since the 16th Century- the middle of the 20th Century. List of countries who experienced the prosperity and richness in cultures and philosophical aspects are Portugal, Holland, and British consecutively. Eventually in 1948, Sri Lanka yielded its independence.
Return to the account of Buddhism was introduced in Sri Lanka; we start from the account of Mahinda Thera, the Indian Buddhist monk, who was sent to the Island by Emperor Asoka after the completion of the third council [tatiya-sanggīti]. Some scholars deny the story of Mahinda Thera who brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka that it is unhistorical. However, it is noteworthy to observe an account presented in the ancient scripture. Not that we have to believe it, but merely information from another source which may have contained some probability of fact – we never know. The account in ‘Mahāvangsa’ states the mission carried out by Mahinda Thera to propagate Buddhism in Ceylon between 236-287 B.C.E. The time the prominent Buddhist monk arrived was in the reign of well-known great King Devānampiyatissa of Sri Lanka.
King Devānampiyatissa proclaimed himself a Buddhist devotee. He made Buddhism flourish under his royal patronage. In this time, it is stated in the scripture that thousands of Sinhalese took Buddhism as their spiritual refuge and ordained as Buddhist monks. Meanwhile, King Devānampiyatissa adopted and promoted the doctrine as National religion. He paid tribute to Buddhism by building monasteries and religious landmarks such as pagodas and ordination halls. The well-known ones are the Mahāvihara [the great monastery], and Thupārama. Furthermore, the scripture also states that the King sent his envoy to the city of Pātalīputra, asking Emperor Asoka to grant a seed of Bhodi tree [the tree under which is believed the Buddha attained enlightenment] to be planted in Sri Lanka. The scripture claims the Emperor not only granted the seed, he also made a royal tribute to the Island by granting, presumably, his daughter who ordained a Buddhist nun named ‘Sangghamittā Therī’ in order to be the inceptor of Sinhalese women who wish to go forth from home to homelessness in Sri Lanka. The tradition of women wish to ordain in orthodox Buddhism can be achieved only in Sri Lanka at the present. Note that nowhere else in the world provides this unique process of ordination to women even in prominent orthodox Buddhist countries like Thailand and Myanmar.
It is stated in the scripture that the sister in law of King Devānampiyatissa, named ‘Anul᷂ādevī’ was also took refuge in Buddhism and ordained as bhikkunī – bhiksuni (skt) [Female-monk] together with 1,000 servants. The scripture also claims she was the first bhikkunī in Sri Lanka, and the seed [the scripture uses the term ‘branch’, but I guess ‘seed’ is more practical in the ancient time] of Bhodi tree was planted in the royal yard named ‘Mahāmeghavana’ [the park of great sky].
I will discuss more on Buddhism in Sri Lanka in next chapter.